How to really save a whale

What to do if you find a stranded whale or dolphin
When confronted with a distressed wild animal, any half-decent human being wants to help. This is a natural and admirable impulse, but don’t launch a rescue mission if you’re not sure what you’re doing – you may well do more harm than good.

Call the pro's immediately. For Cape Town and environs, if you are the first person on the scene, you would call Mike Meyer of Marine and Coastal Management (MCM).

But, beseeches Meyer, if there’s already a crowd gathering, don’t call him but rather call the National Sea Rescue Institute or related agencies which can field large numbers of calls – otherwise his phone will get clogged with messages, as happened during the Kommetjie incident.

First on the scene call:
- Mike Meyer (MCM): Work 021 402 3174; After hours 021 790 267; Cell 082 578 761.
If he can't be contacted:
- Meredith Thornton: (Mammal Research Institute, Iziko Museum): Work 021 481 3854; Cell 082 746 5579
- Nan Rice: (Dolphin Action and Protection Group): All hours (021) 782 5845

If there are already people on the scene and you aren't sure if the authorities have been contacted, rather try calling:
- National Sea Rescue Institute: 082 380 3800
- Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA): 021 700 4140.

While waiting for the experts/authorities
Getting washed up on a beach must feel for a whale like landing on a strange planet where you quickly get surrounded by aliens. Remember these are wild animals who will find human touch highly distressing, so only handle them if absolutely necessary.

The following guidelines are based on those provided by the Dolphin Action and Protection Group:
In the case of a dolphin or small whale, try to roll it into an upright position (they are usually on their side), taking care of the flippers. Carefully clean the eyes and around blow-hole. Dig holes around the flippers and tail, the aim being that the holes will fill with water if the animal is close enough to the sea. Cover the skin with a wet towel or seaweed, without obstructing the blowhole. Pour water over the animal, concentrating on the tail and flippers and not down the blowhole. A dolphin can remain out of the water for hours if kept cool and calm.

If other animals can be seen swimming around close to shore, then a stranded animal can be returned if it appears to be healthy. In all other cases it is not a good idea to try and put a singly stranded, disorientated animal back into the sea. Don't try to tow a large whale back out to sea.

Nicely ask anyone not assisting to stand back, but remember only the authorities can enforce crowd control.

Once the experts/authorities have arrived:
There may indeed be ways you can help as an untrained volunteer, but only as requested by the people in charge. Otherwise, you’ll just be in the way.

This is true for any crisis situation, be it a road accident or a fire. If you don’t have the necessary training and authorization you must clear the area (and encourage others to do so) if you are asked to do so.

Volunteer effectively
If the thought of standing on the sidelines during a crisis makes you fretful, there are hands-on ways you can get involved even if you aren’t a vet or marine biologist.

Meyer believes that people who turn up at a beach where an animal is stranded may have a role to play, by carrrying water buckets for example. But such involvement would need to be tightly supervised in future, and the MCM is in the process of re-thinking how to optimise this.

Ideally, if you want to volunteer in this context you should be prepared to undergo training beforehand and make yourself available for callouts: in other words, commit to giving up large chunks of your free time. This means, though, that you will not only be far more valuable in a crisis, you'll also be less of a risk to yourself. "It's lucky that no-one drowned at Kommetjie," Meyer points out: "It seems there were some people trying to help who couldn't really swim well."

Some options in the marine volunteering area:

National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI): The primary focus of the NSRI is saving human lives on South African waters, but their volunteers sometimes also deal with incidents involving marine animals. As with many volunteer organisations, the NSRI has need for people in different roles. If you want to train for sea recue, however, you need to fulfill their fitness requirements and undergo a six-month training period. NSRI website:

Marine and Coastal Management (MCM): MCM, together with the Dolphin Action and Protection Group, has previously trained volunteers specifically to deal with whales and dolphins. In the wake of the Kommetjie mass stranding, however, during which the department agrees volunteers were not well managed, the MCM will be holding workshops in the coming weeks with disaster management and environmental experts to decide how to go forward with their volunteer programme. If you are keen to volunteer, says Meyer, please rather wait about three weeks before contacting MCM about this. (I will be following up on this; check on the EnviroHealth Forum for updates.)

Consider the indirect approach
Literally saving a whale with your own hands and heart, however foolishly idealistic and unlikely, is the kind of direct, tangible eco-warrior involvement many of us dream of. But failing that, there are other, less emotionally intense but probably more effective measures the average person can take to protect the cetaceans:

Protest and petition.
Add your voice to the chorus of outrage that whaling is still carried out by some nations - and help make sure it doesn’t re-start in others. See the web sites listed under references for campaigns to support.

Discourage overfishing. Fish is a fine food in many respects, but our demand for it is putting enormous strain on the oceans. Not only does this make it harder for many marine creatures to find food, but fishing vessels themselves are a threat, as are their pollution and noise. Consider swapping a fish dish for a vegetarian one every so often, and if you do eat fish, make sure you do so in as a sustainable manner as possible. See the World Wide Fund for Nature’s recommendations in this regard.

Keep toxins and plastics out of the oceans by helping with coastal, riverine and estuarine cleanups, and stop pollutants getting into stormwater drains, which lead to the sea.

And finally, here’s a tip from Save the Whales I didn’t know: never release balloons outside! Lost balloons don't just cause many a small child acute grief, and they don’t just vaporize into the stratosphere; they can end up in the sea where whales, dolphins and turtles think they’re jellyfish and eat them with sometimes fatal results. It's a great illustration for how a seemingly minor action can have dire environmental consequences down the line.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated August 2011

Dolphin Action and Protection Group. 2009. Procedures to follow for single and mass strandings of whales and dolphins and injured seals.
Save the Whales, official web site:
World Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, official web site:

Read more about whale strandings

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